Introduction: Geological Anthropology

From the Series: Geological Anthropology

Image by Levi Walter Yaggy, 1893. “Geological Chart.” David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries.

Geology has become a principal field and framework in the social sciences and humanities in the past decade to understand anthropogenic environmental crises. The recognition of the role that resource extraction has played in setting off the planetary environmental crisis and debates about humanity’s impact on the geological record have contributed to the increasing prominence of geology and the geological. At the same time, anthropologists, geographers, and historians began to investigate the role of the earth sciences, geological formations, and the subterranean in the constitution of social worlds and operations of power (Braun 2000; Ferry and Limbert 2008; Elden 2013; Shen 2014). More recently, Elizabeth A. Povinelli (2016) marked “geontology” as a register of power that hinges on the ontological distinction between life and nonlife.

Povinelli’s account reveals how colonial, capitalist, and racist regimes are legitimized by the demarcation of what is inert and what is living—a distinction that lies at the heart of geology. Like Povinelli, Kathryn Yusoff (2018, xiv) traces the sources of this process in the division between life and nonlife. Geology, or what Yusoff aptly calls “white geology,” might thus be taken as a “racial formation from the onset and, in its praxis, as an extractive and theoretical discipline.” For Yusoff, geology is a relation of power entangled with racializing regimes of dispossession, extraction, slavery, and genocide, or what Yusoff (2018, 105)calls the “racialized territorialization of the earth.” As the recent rush for “rare earth frontiers” (Klinger 2018) and the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on Standing Rock Sioux Tribe land demonstrate, geology continues to be attached to extractive and racializing logics that sustain capitalist and colonial projects.

These violent regimes have been enabled and sustained through notions of the human and humanity. Humanity, as a Western universalizing category, has been constituted through the very exclusion of non-white and Black humans from its perimeters (Weheliye 2014). As indigenous interventions propose, the Anthropos in mainstream discussions over the Anthropocene relies on similar universalizing designations of the human that erase ongoing histories of coloniality (Davis and Todd 2017). The “human,” as these accounts reveal, haunts conversations about the planetary environmental crisis, and thereby inevitably pulls anthropology into the debate. Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1991) has argued that the discipline of anthropology has been assigned with handling the “savage slot” within the Western division of epistemological labor. Nodding to Trouillot’s designation, Elizabeth Ferry, in this series, coins “inorganic slot” to mark geology and its cognate fields that involve knowing, mapping, exploring, or extracting earthly matter. Ferry’s conceptualization urges us to recall the shared legacies of anthropology and geology.

Anthropology and geology have a lot in common: Both disciplines have been contingent upon the opposition of self and other or home and field, as David Kneas’s essay reminds us. Further, like geology, anthropology has a troubling past, having directly or indirectly legitimized scientific racism and colonial projects (Asad 1973; Hymes 1974; Fabian 1983; Baker 1998). Yet despite—or because of—this past, anthropology has nevertheless managed to turn its critical gaze upon “the symbolic order upon which [the savage slot] is premised” (Trouillot 1991, 34), while producing over the last decades anti-racist, critical, and decolonizing interventions in its very claims to knowledge as well as the world it claims to understand (Harrison 1997; Mullings 2005). We believe that linking these political and ethical imperatives from anthropology with geology is crucial today, as grasping our contemporary predicament can only be possible by reconsidering Geos and Anthropos together; and that is the promise of a geological anthropology.

In this series, which grew out of two “Geological Anthropology” panels held at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, we reconsider geology not only simply as yet another object of anthropological knowledge but also as also an analytical and methodological device; a moral, political, or material condition of the present; and an inhuman force that has the potential to recalibrate anthropology and its claims to understand or transform worlds. This series, therefore, does not claim to exclusively practice an anthropology of geology, but embarks on a geological anthropology, whose task is “more than to mark simply another arena of anthropological interest” while attempting to recalibrate “anthropology and geology both as attunements to transformative potential,” as Jerry Zee writes.

We aim to push the limits of geology and invert its traditional disciplinary, conceptual, and material boundaries. As such, the entries adhere to the task of countering “the universalization of the geos,” in Manuel Tironi’s words. In consonance with Ferry’s call for attention to the “disjunctions, slippages, and historical shifts” in the inorganic slot, they adopt both a planetary sensibility and a regard for ethnographic and historical particularities in Senegal, China, and Oman. They challenge assumptions about the kinds of materials that the geological is assumed to entail, the boundaries between living and inert, the spaces that geological is supposed to inhabit, the forms it might take, and the futures it may shape. In doing so, they also partake in the task of Yusoff’s (2018, 104) provocation to “imagine geological relations in nonextractive modes.”

A geological anthropology troubles the categories upon which white geology hinges. As an imaginative approach that aspires to engage with humans’ and nonhumans’ shared existence on a turbulent and dynamic planet, it has the potential to recognize the openings and contingencies in both geology and anthropology, disrupting the notions of “the human” and “inorganic” that they have been tasked with policing in the first place. A geological anthropology, as Jerome Whitington’s excavation of overlooked geological humanisms from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thought reveals, is an invitation to conjure up the plural and untimely (Wilder 2009) notions of humanism as an antidote to the white geologies of the Anthropocene that “reek of contempt of the earth” (Whitington, this series).

A geological anthropology has the potential to push both geology and anthropology toward “ways to do the planetary otherwise” and “a possible genesis of a humanity to come” (Pandian 2019, 104). For this reason, recalibrating geology is fundamental to the task of reimagining a human that is no longer the very curator of dehumanizing, dispossessive, and extractive regimes, but an Anthropos that is made to the measure of the Earth, to misquote Aimé Césaire (1972, 73). A geological anthropology, therefore, dares to imagine another Anthropos and another Geos—since there is no other planet to call home, and for the fates of not only anthropology and geology, but also humanity and Earth, are bound together.


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Baker, Lee D. 1998. From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896–1954. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Braun, Bruce. 2000. “Producing Vertical Territory: Geology and Governmentality in Late Victorian Canada.” Ecumene 7, no. 1: 7–46.

Césaire, Aimé. 1972. Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Davis, Heather, and Zoe Todd. 2017. “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene.” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 16, no. 4: 761–80.

Elden, Stuart. 2013. “Secure the Volume: Vertical Geopolitics and the Depth of Power.” Political Geography 34: 35–51.

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Ferry, Elizabeth Emma, and Mandana Limbert. 2008. Timely Assets: The Politics of Resources and their Temporalities. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: School for Advanced Research Press.

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Klinger, Julie Michelle. 2018. Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes. New York: Cornell University Press.

Mullings, Leith. 2005. “Interrogating Racism: Toward an Antiracist Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 667–93.

Pandian, Anand. 2019. A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2016. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Shen, Grace Yen. 2014. Unearthing the Nation: Modern Geology and Nationalism in Republican China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Weheliye, Alexander G. 2014. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

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Yusoff, Kathryn. 2018. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.